Monday, January 4, 2010

The Obama Enigma

I've seen some polarizing presidents in my life. Even presidents who have been popular at the polls have been polarizing. And this applies to presidents who were left of center as well as right of center.

Bill Clinton was polarizing. So was Ronald Reagan. And both were re–elected. Certainly, George W. Bush was polarizing. So, too, was Jimmy Carter. It crosses party lines and ideologies.

But I would have to say that Barack Obama is the most polarizing president in my lifetime. Why is that? I've been trying to reach some sort of conclusion on that.

I think part of it is because the people who like Obama — mostly, I'm talking about the ones who stood in line to vote for him in the primaries and the general election in 2008 but also those who came on board after the election was over — don't see him the way others see him. I've heard them describe him as "cool," but that seems to be their impression of him based strictly on appearance. I've asked for elaboration, and no one has been able to provide anything beyond the physical. They see him as smooth and suave, as graceful as Fred Astaire was in those movies with Ginger Rogers.

It doesn't seem to occur to them that there are some people in this country — many of them, actually — for whom "cool" is not a quality that a president must have. But when many of Obama's admirers look at him, that's what they see — a "cool" president.

Perhaps it is a semantic thing. Perhaps part of it is sort of an instinctive reaction from an older group of voters who can remember the days of the hippies and how "cool" was part of the left–wing lingo of the times. The word has evolved since then, but, to some ears, "cool" means remote, distant, detached. Some people, citing Obama's passionless handling of many big issues, think it is the ideal word to describe him, although not for the same reasons as his ardent admirers.

That one four–letter word says different things to each group.

In this "post–racial" society that really isn't, how much of the resistance to Obama is racism? I don't know. I'm sure there is an element of racism. He's the first black president. He's breaking a color barrier, just as Jackie Robinson did in baseball more than 60 years ago. There are some people who resent that. If there were those who believed it would be otherwise, they were naive.

And there are those on the Republican side, just as there are those on the Democratic side, for whom politics is a never–ending contest, and they are driven by the partisanship of their side. They are the ones who are guilty of wild exaggerations, the comparisons of Obama to Hitler, the allegations of "death panels."

But those who fall into one camp or another make up a small portion of the total, I think. In my experience, most of the people who don't approve of the job Obama is doing are neither racist nor partisan, just scared and not reassured by their leaders. They're frightened by a constantly escalating jobless rate. They're frightened by two wars that continue nearly a year into the presidency they expected would end them. They're frightened by a Christmas Day episode in which only a faulty detonator and a quick–acting passenger prevented a catastrophe, followed by the Homeland Security secretary's defensive insistence that the system worked.

Many of those people are the independents, the so–called swing voters, who voted for Obama in 2008 and are experiencing buyer's remorse today. The way to win them back is not by talking about who is to blame or accusations of bigotry. The key is by addressing the things that concern them and building a record they feel comfortable with.

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